Missouri attorney general sues over deadly duck boat sinking

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Attorney General Josh Hawley on Friday sued the owners and operators of a tourist boat that sank in a Missouri lake, killing 17 people, alleging that the companies violated the state's consumer protection law and put profits above safety.

Hawley asked a Taney County circuit judge to order the owner and operator —Branson Duck Vehicles, LLC and Ripley Entertainment — to pay restitution and other penalties. The attorney general's office also is asking that the judge ban the amphibious vehicle tours from operating, although a Ripley spokeswoman said tours stopped after the July sinking .

"This tragedy should not have happened," Hawley said in a statement, adding that he hopes the lawsuit will "ensure that unsafe duck boats and companies who put profits ahead of safety will not continue to operate. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of safety and that was not met on July 19."

Ride the Ducks of Branson offered tours that first drive on land before entering Table Rock Lake near Branson for a nearly 20-minute ride. Video and audio recovered after the boat sank showed the lake was calm when it went into the water but winds up to 70 mph began blowing suddenly and one boat, carrying 31 people, sank within minutes.

The attorney general's petition alleges employees had told the driver of the duck boat to skip the driven tour and head directly to the lake to avoid giving refunds, "even though potentially hazardous conditions were forecasted for the area."

Sixteen passengers and one crew member died. Fourteen people survived.

Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, did not immediately comment on the lawsuit Friday. She has said Ripley is cooperating with other investigations and will pay for funeral and medical expenses.

In the Friday court filing, Hawley's office claimed the companies "have been on notice for decades of ongoing safety hazards that posed a present and deadly danger to every person who boarded a duck boat." But state lawyers say they kept information from passengers and claimed safety was a top priority, "when in actuality it was their own profits."

The lawsuit claims Ride the Ducks did not make recommended safety improvements to its boats after a September 2017 inspection. On the day of the sinking, the lawsuit claims the tour business did not follow life jacket requirements and ignored weather warnings of high-speed winds.

The Coast Guard earlier this month made public the ill-fated boat's certificate of inspection, which prohibited it from being on the water when winds exceeded 35 mph and/or wave heights exceeded 2 feet.

Hawley's suit is the latest of several filed in response to the tragedy. Three federal lawsuits have been filed in the Western District of Missouri against the duck boat operators. A criminal investigation by federal prosecutors is also underway.